Open Ballot: is Android's success good for Linux?


There's no doubt that Android is a storming success, with 37% of the North American smartphone market share in January, and over 150,000 applications available. At its core is a customised Linux kernel. But there's a big question here: is all this success actually good for Linux? Millions of people now have Linux in their pockets and are using it every day, but will this ever help Linux in its more familiar server and desktop settings?

Maybe you've got some experience of an Android user who discovered Linux through his/her device, or you think Google isn't doing enough to spread awareness of free software. Whatever the case, let us know your musings in the comments below, and we'll read out the best in our next podcast.

And if you can be a bit more original than Anonymous Penguin, we'll give you a cookie.

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Your comments

Meh as a short answer

It is partially however how many people know that it is based on Linux?

It's the same on the desktop you call thing by the distro name not linux. So you would ask for Ubuntu, Fedora, Open SuSe and not linux.

It's good that something opensource is now in the hands of so many users as it's not so hard to describe what linux is any more. "You know you've got an android phone well that runs on linux, so <distro of choice> is like a mix of android with the looks of windows/mac."

Not sure I can see how?

Millions of people use a TomTom SatNav device (other satnav devices are available) which is powered by Linux but I wouldn't say it's had any impact on the Linux server/desktop settings.

Linux powers a great number of devices we use directly or indirectly every day but I can't say that would make people switch. I know a large number of people with Android phones who - had I not mentioned it - would have had no idea they were using Linux.

My personal hope is that some of the Android goodness pushes it's way back up into the desktop environment and makes Linux a more desirable platform to develop for, if that happens then users may follow.

The majority of users will

The majority of users will still no more care that Android sits on a Linux kernal than they care who won the last "Britain's Cleanest Lamppost Award". But... it SHOULD help secure Linux ever more credability with businesses that it is a worthy platform to base their own systems on.

More users will surely lead to more contributors, which can only be a good thing.

OMG I just realized something!

I don't think it's obvious that android is based on a linux kernel. We need to make it clear that it's:


looks like RMS is right after all :)

Not Open?

What really puts me off Android is that the project as I see it can barely be called "Open Source", even if it is based on the Linux kernel. At least in terms of development methodology, I believe it's pretty closed. It could maybe be considered similar to MacOS X, which is based on the open-source Darwin kernel.

From what I've heard, Google hasn't been too keen to play ball in terms of finding long-term solutions to phone usecases for the Linux kernel, and has instead opted to maintain their own in-house modifications. I'm not saying that was wrong of them, but I would like to see Linux improved for all through use in Android, so in that sense Android isn't helping Linux.

If you include userspace (e.g. GNU, Qt, Cairo, etc...) in the term "Linux", then Android really isn't Linux. As I understand it, Google has built a completely custom stack on top of the kernel, so no standard "Linux" userspace is present in Android.

In time, in time

Android as a platform is going strong and is still growing. I think that when it reaches a certain point in the public image, there'll be a lot more reports on how it's based on 'a Linux kernel' (even further down the line it might get reported as 'a GNU/Linux kernel' ;) Also, as big Linux distros such as Ubuntu get more and more popular/widespread, I think the public's awareness of free software/open source software will grow too. Hopefully, as Toddy the Onymous Penguin said, this will lead to more people having a tinker and contributing to the free software community.

I don't think Google is doing all that much to spread the word of free software at the moment because it may well dampen the uptake of its products as the public isn't too hot on what this means. Also, they're a business that has to keep running.

To sum up: at the moment, most people want free beer, not free speech ;)

Yes and no.

Not really in the way of "Oh, it is Linux, I think I will install it on my pc as well." which would be a huge beneficial effect. More in the lines of and example while talking with someone that is having computer problems but don't want to try Linux as it is to hard.

It's complicated.....

I don't see how it can really be BAD for Linux, but people aren't aware that it IS Linux at it's core, so I doubt it really has any measurable impact on our desktop share at all.

Google must be contributing to the kernel in the end, adding custom Android patches and releasing them under an open license.This must surely be good.

They're helping us, if doing anything at all, but at the same time, fragmentation can't give us a good image.

That little box of tricks

For the user, the only thing that matters is, does it work, is it secure and, can I link it to my computer.

That little box of tricks might be running on the Linux kernel but, can it talk to a Linux desktop? My Tom Tom can't, well I certainly don't know how to update it through a Linux desktop.

Probably, the only reason some manufacturers use open software is because it is cheaper than proprietary software. I doubt it has little to do with supporting Linux.

Yes! No!

I don't think it makes the slightest bit of difference to be honest. The vast majority won't care beyond what apps run on Android. Anyone tech-savvy enough to care about the underlying OS will doubtless be aware of Linux already. It's neither good or bad.


...why does Andrew look about ten years younger in his new LXF staff photo? What dark sorcery is this?

Linux Mark

When a lot of Java apps start, a powered by Java screen appears.

My android phone lets me know about Linux in a deep-buried settings menu.

Lots of non-techie people know that Java is a professional computer language even if they can't program in it as most apps show a Java splash screen.

If Linux had a more "professional" / corporate symbol it would help.

It would be great if being allowed to use Linux as the base your product was built on, required you to show the corporate Linux sign

Then people would know more about Linux.


Ubuntu takes an entire GNU/Linux distro, puts a blurry wallpaper and annoying popups on top of it, and then claims this is an "OS" all of its own, and never mentions the word "Linux" on its website.

And you want Google to "spread awareness" more, because they take just the kernel? Or maybe you don't.

In any case, Google is turning into a big Linux success story. They are a giant company that's publicly traded, ie, has shareholders to worry about, so reconciling everything they have to reconcile they will never be the model FOSS champions, but their contribution is immense already on many fronts.

success breeds success

I believe it is good for Linux. The more individuals and organizations that have success with Linux the more other individuals and organizations will try to imitate their success. Positive exposure/word of mouth is what has driven Linux. Think about how you started in is all word of mouth and a successful experience. The result is slow dedicated growth. That is what we have seen with Linux. I think this is also why Ubuntu has done well. They have done a better job of making Linux more main stream. The general public does not want technology you have to fiddle with. They want to be isolated from configuration issues and just use the product. Couple that with Linux really being somewhat difficult for the average Joe to fix a broken system and it is a slow climb to mainstream.
Android for the most part accomplishes the ease of use and gives Linux free advertising. I never saw a Linux related ad on TV before. But you do see Android advertise and spread the word.

Meego would be better

For Linux itself (kernel) it probably a good thing (more developers, drivers, etc). For GNU/Linux I think it doesn't matter that much. Well we got plenty of nice gadgets that can kind of run Linux kernel and we can run GNU/Linux on top of it with some effort... But I think for GNU/Linux it would be much better if Meego would get more popular as that is a real GNU/Linux and not just a Linux kernel with Java Virtual Machine.

Google marketed Android cleverly to geeks; they were conned

I think it is hilarious that Linux podcasts have spent, well, probably more than half their air time in the last year (Tux Radar being a relatively sober exception to this) hemming and hawing about Android.
Near as I can tell, Android is still a joke compared to iOS. But the joke is on the geeks who have been promoting this unfree mobile operating system based on the hoary old "open source" argument, just before Google pulls the rug out from under them on that. SUCKERssssssss!

A step in the right direction

I think it is a step in the right direction. I bought an Android phone last year (HTC Desire Z) because it is Linux-based and because Android seems to be the best Smartphone OS at present.
I know that most Android users did not choose it because it's Linux, but because it works really well and lets them do cool stuff on their phones -- this is how Linux should be, i.e. people just buy stuff with Linux on, without really knowing what it is, but just that it works. Otherwise only a few Linux geeks would be buying Android phones and only because it's running Linux.
Anything running Linux that people buy because they really want it, and not because of Linux, is a plus for Linux.
Linux can remain "invisible" to most users, i.e. it does not get in the way, it's just there, behind the scenes, doing its job and allowing people to be more productive, creative, etc.
With Android there is no battle between supporters of Gnome and KDE, or Fedora and Ubuntu. It's just a Linux OS that works so well that people do not care or need to know it's Linux.
We all take breathing air for granted, without even thinking about what the oxygen content is or what other gases are there. Linux needs to be the same, where it is a standard that powers devices so that they just work. Instead of Windows-powered devices which just crash or get spyware.

Not this time.

I know a fair few people who went MAC after enjoying their iPhones (I won't say iOS as they don't have iPads). iOS devices are heavily Apple advertised and very nicely made.

Android just isn't/aren't - and it doesn't have the iOS consistency and beauty. Therefore:

1) Android isn't good enough to promote Linux on the desktop.
2) Android isn't marketed as Linux so most won't know or care.

Have we ever asked if education should be the starting point? Perhaps if schools/colleges and Universities were the starting point, then those going into business could work away at the inside. When peoples business machines turned to Linux, surely the old 'I just want to use what I'm used to' argument would work in our favor?

Why can't we run android apps on Linux Distros.

The development process for android is pretty closed and they won't release the source code for Android 3.0 Honeycomb for some time (although I understand that they don't want manufacturers putting it on phones when it contains lots of hacks to run on tablets).
It would be good for Linux generally if we could port over the virtual machine which Android runs on and run Android and all it's Apps on say Ubuntu. They both run Linux kernels and the Dalvik virtual machine is open source so I wouldn't think it would be too hard. I have heard the new Blackberry Playbook will be able to run Android applications so why not a Linux distro.
Is anybody doing any work on this, it would seem like a good idea. Or maybe technically it's harder than I think.

A Tale of Two Markets

Linux has been a good choice for embedded devices. Hell even my Virgin HD Box is running linux, the thing is that 99.9% of users won't realise or care. This argument extends to Android also. Actually thinking about it the situation is reversed. I think that Linux, or more generally open source software, has helped Android to differentiate itself in the smart phone market. People latch on to the 'open' monicker and see it as an alternative to the locked down approach from Apple and Microsoft. Without getting into a debate about how open Android actually is, getting the FLOSS message out there in a big way can only be a good thing for Linux and open source going forward.

A more interesting question would be how existing Linux home users came to hear about Linux, but that's a whole new open ballot!

Better Android than Win Mobile

The nice thing about Android is that it shoved Linux in the developing smart-phone market before Microsoft could get there. One of the reasons Linux fails to gain popularity on the desktop is because there's no room for it on the already matured desktop market. Getting Linux (whether people know it's Linux or not) in the smart-phone market now leaves room for later development. If nothing else, Android beats off Microsoft from expanding it's monopoly.

To a degree...

My understanding of the Android architecture it's more of a testimony for Java/Davlik machines than linux.

Overall, it depends more on how smartphones and tablets move forward. My perception is that they will eventually become smart terminals for your home desktop where you can still do some stuff when disconnected. In that sense it's help to linux has not yet matured.


Android runs on the Linux kernel. It's not called Android Linux, or Sentient Robotic Being Linux. Google's separation from the name, and the multitude of non-free software running on the devices. Make it very hard to say it's good for Linux.


Yes Android is good for linux any success story is.

I don't subscribe to Richard Stallman's extreme views on Linux.

Anything that takes Linux into a new direction is great for Linux even if that means working with proprietry software.

Yes it's good for Linux. No,

Yes it's good for Linux.
No, it's not good for FOSS in general. It's not bad either, but it's not good.


I honestly don't know but its nice to be able to hook up my phone to my linux box and it just works.

So i suppose its good for me

Probably not so far

As the average user has no idea that Android is Linux based, not so far. But it is HUGELY good for Google branding. It makes all Google services simple to use, naturally. I see no way round this, no way to turn this into a win for Linux, other than to quietly spread the word.....

android good but.....

However good Android may be there are many buggy and insecure aps out there.

I don't want people to think the quality of the aps = the much more better monitored software that makes up most linux distros!

just a little...

and only if hardware drivers for android are floss and not just open-source, but even if the divers are proprietary, maybe a least good ones.

Poor example

Android doesn't have a perfect track record, with criticism leveled towards it from Apple and a whole bunch of people who don't really like the way Android is managing it's code. They withhold their code, upsetting the open source people and allow any and all apps onto their marketplace, upsetting ordinary people. If Android is identified as "Linux", people will think Linux is an OS for phones with piles of fragmentation and inconsistency all over it.

Yes...and no...

On the one hand there's the fact that Android devices now outsell iPhones (ufortunately, little is said about the fact that Android has a Linux kernel).

On the other there's the fact that Android is not fully Open, which partially undermines the work of those trying to promote Linux as a "free" (as in beer/speech) and open solution. How can we promote Linux (and derivatives such as Android) as suitable unrestricted alternatives to Windows/iOS/OSX as long as Google close off some of the source?

Overall a good thing

It is good in the sense that its using the Linux kernel and its highly successful. Yet very, very few outside of the FOSS circle are aware its got the kernel or would even care if they did know. Even some of my more tech-user friends don't realize Android is Linux based. I'm in a rural area in the USA though, and it often seems like no one has heard of Linux or FOSS. A few years ago when I talked of Linux, I would say Ubuntu and Fedora and get blank looks. Now I say Linux is under the hood of Android and at least get some understanding.

Google doesn't promote Linux, Google promotes Google

Is Android still truly Linux by the time a phone hits the the store shelf? Well, it does at least retain the fragmentation of Linux, which is no good no matter who is practicing the fragmentation.

I don't think many people could tell you what brand of paints Da Vinci used. Did it help XYZ Paints that Da Vinci used them over ABC Paints? I suspect even fewer people could tell you what raw materials Google started off with to make a quasi-open, quasi-Linux phone / tablet platform.

Android makes about as much difference as a Roku box running on Linux makes to getting Netflix to allow streaming of movies on a Linux desktop.

Manufacturers, et al, will always be happy to take something free like Linux and profit from it, without actually promoting Linux or even advancing Linux within the existing Linux community.

But then how do you promote such a fragmented ecosystem that is unappealing to mainstream developers to target with apps? If the devs won't write for it, then there is no chance of getting mainstream consumers to knowingly ~choose~ to use bona fide "Linux," particularly on a desktop / laptop.

Mass adoption of Linux on the desktop dies at the point you something like "Okay, now you have to select a package manager ...." If the community can't even settle on a best-of-breed standard here, and keep iterating and improving that one standard instead of scratching a million itches, then forget about it. Mass adoption would require a benevolent triumvirate to force some standards upon everything, from the kernel to the userland, etc. It's a shame the Canterbury Project was just an April Fool's joke.

Not that the average Linux user cares about mass adoption, Linux is after all geek chic, mass adoption would spoil that.

In any event, I hope 2011 is The Year Of Netflix On The Linux Desktop!

moreover, phones suffer more from vendor lock-in

You can use your laptop with any ISP, but you cannot necessarily use any phone with any carrier.

If Google actually wanted to promote Linux (and not Android, or the cloud-dependent Chrome OS), desktops and laptops would be a more common (and less limited) language for most consumers.

Google could buy out Canonical then start porting Photoshop, et al, to Linux, or make Gimp every bit as good as Photoshop, et al. I'm not sure what the payoff would be to Google in doing that though. At the end of the day Google is a marketing company and not a technology company, so perhaps your Google Linux desktop wallpaper would have AdWords built-in.

Android is a Linux distro as the one on my fridge

Sorry people, but I really don't understand how you can be happy watching the explosive growth of Android and (never) complain about what bothers me the most: the only way to have total control over it would be to hack the device. On other words... what good there is if I can't be root and use, let's say, a vnc SERVER on my phone? vnc is useless? maybe (not for me, anyway, I could use it in my job) but is not the point.
The point is, what great LINUX OS is if CAN'T I be root? maybe is great, maybe is a Linux Kernel, but I can't see it in a better light than iOS...

The real success of Android is..

that the word Linux need not be used.

Which Android is it anyway

My Motorola Dext (I know) is stuck at 1.5.
I think this is the irritability of the Android platform.
Why can I not bring it up-to-date? Well I could if I risk "bricking it". Android may be "free" but it is not "free".

So now why do I want to bring it up to date?
Some apps do not work on 1.5 and look at the lovely Honeycomb on the Acer tablet 10, Hmmm. But even that does not have a 3G/4G connection at that price!

My cynicism is that to change phone I have to break a contract (£££) and then to get the shiny new one I have to agree to a 18/24/36/life contract which means I have to wait again for any new developments.

I would like to replace this with a HTC Desire Z and then hopefully Connectbot will work and give me the underscore I so desperately need. Only 6 months to go.

Android is certainly not plain old Linux BUT..

Consider the availability of apps on Linux and Android.For 1 dollar you can buy app on Android which will annotate your PDF files.On Linux PDFedit is difficult to use and keeps crashing on me.Okular and Xournal on Linux can add annotation but not to actual PDF file.They use separate file for annotations.The rarity of commercial software on Linux remains amazing.

On the other hand it would certainly have been appreciated if Google made more contribution to Linux instead of telling people that making contributions to Linux is too much task for their "small" Android team.And using Linux kernel AND calling GPL "viral in nature" is absolutely rude and nonsense.


all these years of being in love with the idea of making my /PC/ something like the Irix machines I fell in love with at my first job at NASA are paying off! As an embedded guy (for the most part) it's great to know that having built my own CF booting clone running Linuxfromscratch were not in vain job wise. :)

Its better than nothing

Linux is not going to get big overnight. If Linux expands, it will do so very very gradually. The success of Android is not bringing very many users in, but it is bringing some. We can't expect anything to make Linux grow as big as Windows overnight. But any progress is better than no progress.

There are some things that Android could do better to help Linux like actually letting people know that Android is based on Linux. And maybe Android could also let me have control over the phone without hacking it. and let me run my Linux apps on Android and Android apps on Linux.

But the point it, Its better than nothing. Look at our alternatives: BlackBerry OS, Symbian, iOs. I think Android is definately a huge step forward from those horrid excuses for an OS. Yes, maybe Android could do better, but It is alot better compared to everything else.

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